Acts 4:5-12; Psalms 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 April 25, 2021 – 4th Sunday in Easter
We gather this morning on the fourth Sunday of Easter, which we, as United Methodists celebrate as Good Shepherd Sunday. We began our readings with the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.” We concluded with the passage from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John where Jesus explains the difference between good shepherds and hired help. The good shepherd has a relationship with the sheep. They are precious because they have been put in that shepherd’s care. It is their good luck, perhaps, but once they have been cared for by this gift of God to the world, they will be able to see that a hired shepherd cares for them only for his or her own sake. To the hired hand, they are only a transaction…a source of money with which they can do whatever they want. Since they only represent money…worldly wealth…the hired shepherd only does the minimum for them. If they are lost, the hired shepherd only loses money for themselves, not the wealth their master has entrusted to their care…they do not care for anything so dear as the trust of another living creature. We have been entrusted to the care of another many times…our parents…a doctor…a teacher…a church. And others have been entrusted to our care…children… clients…students… the person in the seat next to you on the plane. When we begin to think along these lines as a church…as a light in the darkness…we see that still others have been entrusted to our care. Love God, Jesus told us, and love your neighbor. And who is our neighbor? Our community, certainly, but also everyone we meet, wherever we happen to meet them…and many we will never meet. So we are shepherds and sheep, sent to do what goodness demands of a shepherd…and called to listen for the shepherd’s voice as sheep. We do all of this tending and following out of love…and it is a love that God has been trying to show us…ever since Eden…when humans awoke to something called consequences. We cannot simply do whatever we want at any instant…because of consequences…and we may harm ourselves…or those we love…when we act upon a whim… Love is the thing that permits us to see …beyond a moment or a transaction… to a relationship that we have with each other…and with God. We cannot choose to believe what we want to believe without questioning ourselves as closely as the world will question us about that choice… without reflection…without spending time alone with our Creator… We cannot truly ask if it is a good thing for a right reason…unless we ask ourselves ‘why’ we are about to do what we are about to do…in the presence of God…know that God… all-knowing and all-loving…is listening to our answer to ourselves….and praying for us. John’s letter instructs us today, “Children, you show love for others by truly helping them, and not merely by talking about it.” I have seen you grow into this role over the past six years. You have gone from a church with a mortgage to a church with a vision. You are not merely talking about it. You are truly helping people. We have never failed to try a new idea when it sounded promising. We have a Boy Scout Troop for girls as they become young women. I was so impressed with our Eagle Scout at the Eagle Scout Court of Honor last month. Gabrielle Thorsen has been blessed with dedicated troop leaders, supporting, involved parents and all the ability that it took to get there. But that hour she showed a maturity and confidence in herself as a person…in her ability to do the right thing. A shy young person from our community has been transformed by a movement that is 100 years old. That came to a sacred moment that happened here, right where I am standing… You opened your hearts and your doors to another community of people who…on their honor…want to make the world better…by doing their best …to do their duty…to God and their country…to help other people at all times…to keep themselves physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight. This room has been blessed by that hour of celebration a few months ago. We have struggled and learned as we have grown. Our Thursday dinners were a great idea and they had an early success, but it was a huge commitment of time and resources and it was impossible to find a night when students would be free to come and spend time with each other over a meal. I have heard the thought that maybe a community dinner once a month would be better, but that is all up to you now. It is important that in spite of this disappointment, you remained committed to drawing the community together in so many ways and you were willing to grow in understanding and spirit to find the right thing for you to do for the right reasons. We are both shepherds and sheep as we do this…listening to the shepherd’s voice and giving people one more reason to get together and find solutions for their common problems. I ran across this in my reading recently. I can’t remember where it came from, but it describes this growing in many ways at once perfectly. I wrote it down. “Love endures when the lovers love not just each other, but also love many things together.” That describes a community…like you…that nurtures hope and faith…that can see things as they are and ask “Why?”…and can see things as they never have been and asks, “Why not?” This past year has been a great challenge to all of us. We have all carried a heavy burden. It has also been a great teacher. We learned how much we need each other. The lesson is like what the Skin Horse said to the Velveteen Rabbit. We have become shabby and loose in the joints in that way. But in spite of that we have kept the flock together and we continued to make progress as we sustained each other…behind masks and at a social distance. You have been shepherds and sheep through it all, caring for each other…listening to each other. Your Special Ministry Reserve Account has made a difference for local and international ministries. Other churches have been asking me how you did it and how they can get started, too. This is a very important thing to happen at this time. We have been pulled apart by a public health crisis, we have faced down an economic crisis, and we are dealing with social unrest, on both the left and the right. You have been undaunted in the face of that, and you have continued to do what you knew you would be able to do once the mortgage was gone. We have been pulled apart for a long time now. John Philip Sousa saw the issue in the gramophone: people would stop learning how to make music… they wouldn’t get together so sing and play their instruments. They would give more attention to a machine than a person. Then movie theatres gave us a way to escape from reality for a little while. Television rearranged our living rooms. Before TV the furniture faced the center of the room, after TV it all faced the TV. Then there were cell phones and the internet and we quit going to ball games. Then there was Amazon and we quit going to the store. We quit doing all those things that made us run into people face to face and talk to them about what is happening in our neighborhood. We are having more meaningful relationships with our machines than we are having with our neighbors. I lean into a strong wind of technological preoccupation to tell you church is more important than ever as the last best place where real people can talk about real things. You are a room full of lovers who love many things together. You have kept that love light burning bright. You have found a way to share it with the whole world. In all of this, you have been both attentive sheep and brave, faithful…and daring shepherds. That’s how you are. That’s what you do. Keep doing it. One of the things I had to do recently was to write a Transition Plan to give us a path to follow as you prepare to receive a new pastor. Some of the items are specific to Bigfork and some are based upon the tested practices of our greater church. I am preparing a 3-ring binder for your new pastor, whoever that might be. It will introduce them to the community, to their new church, and to their new home. It will give them a typical calendar of activities, like our Cinco de Mayo celebration next Sunday. It will give them a typical month of committee meeting schedules. They will receive a complete picture of the financial condition of the church. I will be moving to Billings, which is about 450 miles from here. I will not be with you in worship for at least one year and I will not talk to you about the life of Bigfork Community United Methodist Church after my departure. You will have to talk to your new pastor…and them alone…about that. I visited with some people about whether to have a charge conference before I leave. It appears to me to be the better course to have it, so you can have your budget set and your officers elected, before your new pastor arrives. I hope we can do that in mid-June. Once I step down, I will perform no pastoral functions in any church or charge to which I have not been appointed, and if I am called by any member of a congregation I once served, I will refer them to their current pastor without comment. Until then I am your pastor. I will lead worship, attend committee meetings, and keep you in my prayers. While I am stepping back from many activities in the community, I will continue to be involved where I can whenever it is in the best interests of the church. In doing all this, too, we are both attentive sheep and faithful shepherds, listening for the true voice and doing the right thing for the right reasons. In carefully planning this part of the life of your church, we are doing all we can to assure your important work in the community and the world will go on uninterrupted with a successful transition of the pastoral duties. Dana Whitney is able to fill in many details for your new pastor that may not make it into the Transition Plan. You can help in this, and many other, ways as well. Early in my time here, I told the Staff Parish Relations Committee, “This is going to be fun. I think you’re going to like this.” Someone made a banner of it and taped it up in the fellowship area where it hung for a few weeks. It has been fun and I think we have enjoyed and grown in our time together. People I served at Huntley have come to worship here and they say, “You have gotten better.” I didn’t do all of that…we did all of that…you have shaped me and encouraged me into what I am now. The good news is that we still have time to be together and important work to do together. When Jesus was talking to the disciples about what a good shepherd is like, he understood these things as well. His life was not taken from him. He gave it up. He had other sheep to watch over when he left them. He knew it was necessary for him to leave that they might receive the Holy Spirit. We can still do what is best for the church because it is best for the church. The church has an important part to play in this community and in this world. As we do this faithfully and for the right reasons, we will stay one in God’s heart and God will stay one with us all. It is simply the best thing we can do for everyone, including ourselves. If we do it the way it needs to be done, if we do it because it is the right thing to do and because we love this church and this community, we will stay one in our hearts with Jesus and he will stay one with us…wherever we are. It also frees us, all of us in the world, one day to be one flock with one shepherd, and that shepherd is Jesus Christ, who brought us together, who died for us, and who is in our midst wherever two or more of us gather in his name.
It is a big ask that God has made of us. It is up to us to ask in return…
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us…and through me…this day? Amen.